The following post was written by Philip F. Lawler
, editor emeritus of Catholic World Report
. He is the
editor of Catholic World News (cwnews.com
) and author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse
of Boston’s Catholic Culture
, the acclaimed book about the priestly scandals in Boston.
Ten years have passed
since the Boston archdiocese was engulfed in scandal, as the result of
investigative reporting by the Boston Globe
. Today the faithful in Boston are still struggling to
shake off the lingering effects of that scandal. But a full recovery is delayed
because of two popular misconceptions, which should be corrected.
First, the scandal
exposed by the Globe in January
2002 was not the sexual abuse of
young people by Catholic priests. That scandal had already been exposed a full
decade earlier, as sickening stories of clerical molesters emerged from
Louisiana and from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. By the turn of the
century, anyone who followed the story carefully recognized that these cases
were not isolatedthat the problem was widespread.
The Globe expose added an entirely new dimension to the story,
revealing a second scandal. While some priests abused children, the Globe reporting showed, archdiocesan officials had
protected the predators, covered up evidence, and lied to parishioners about
their priests’ problems. The Globe exposed the corruption within the Boston hierarchy which had allowed the abuse
Within a few months
after the appearance of that shocking investigative coupduring what the late
Father Richard Neuhaus called the “long Lent” of 2002a similar pattern of
episcopal corruption was exposed in many other American dioceses. Only a small
percentage of the Catholic priests in the US were charged with abusing
children, but a very large percentage of the country’s bishops (fully
two-thirds, according to an exhaustive search through the available evidence by
the Dallas Morning News) had been implicated
in the cover-up.
When they gathered in
Dallas in June 2002, staggering from the pounding of public criticism, the
American bishops devised a plan to cope with the first scandal: the abuse of
young people by Catholic priests. To this day they have never addressed the
second scandal: the complicity within the hierarchy. Priests who have been
accused of abuse have been removed from active ministry, but bishops who were
demonstrably guilty of protecting the abusers remained in office.
In Boston, Cardinal
Bernard Law was pressured to resign later in 2002. But his chief aides, who had
carried out the policies that brought his downfall, remained. There was never a
full public accounting for the many misleading statements that had been released
by the archdiocese, so the damage done to the credibility of Church leadership
was not repaired. Since arriving in Boston in 2003, Cardinal Sean O’Malley has
done an admirable job of ministering to abuse victims, soothing fears and
calming anger. But he has not addressed the credibility gap.
Second, the decline of
Catholicism in Boston was not caused by the scandal. By any measurable
standard, the influence of the Church had been in decline for yearsperhaps for
decadesbefore the first stories of priestly misconduct hit the headlines.
Indeed in my book The Faithful Departed I argued that the sex-abuse scandal should be understood not as the
cause of the troubles that ail the Church in Boston, but as the symptom of a
By any standard
measurement, the influence of Catholicism in Boston has been waning since
sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Mass attendance has been
on a downward trend since 1950. The number of men ordained to the priesthood,
and women entering religious life, began to plummet in the late 1960s. By the
1970s it was clear that most lay Catholics had ceased listening to the teaching
voice of their Church.
Nowhere was this more
evident than in the field of politics. Boston’s representatives in the US
Congress and at the Massachusetts State House voted overwhelmingly in favor of
legal abortion, even while most of these politicians professed to be faithful
Catholics. And again, this decline in Church influence was apparent long before
the fateful Globe investigation.
In the first decade of
the 21st century, this gradual decline in Catholic influence has
become a disorderly rout. Massachusetts politicians have given their approval
to same-sex marriage, required hospitals to provide “emergency” contraception,
and encouraged fetal research. On each of issues, the Catholic bishops have
issued pro forma statements
asserting the Church’s position, but have been unable to mount any real
resistance against the secular liberal onslaught.
This year an ominous
new initiative is on the horizon: a bid to legalize assisted suicide. The
Boston archdiocese has vowed to resist the effort, but the political outlook is
daunting. The Church has few notable allies at the State House. For decades,
aspiring politicians in Boston had taken great pains to show their deference to
the Church. Now even Catholic candidates find it more expedient to advertise
themselves as impervious to Church influence.
The catastrophic loss
of political influence mirrors a similarly steep drop in the vitality of parish
life. Shortly after his arrival in Boston, Cardinal O’Malley presided over an
unprecedented round of parish closings. Angry parishioners resisted the
archdiocesan orders, and in a few parishes, dissidents are still holding
vigils, keeping the churches open and organizing their own para-liturgical
ceremoniesin effect establishing their own little sects. As painful as it was,
the parish-closing process failed to stop the hemorrhaging, and now another
major retrenchment is likely. Catholic schools are closing too, and the
archdiocese has sold off its hospital system to a secular corporation.
Amid this devastation,
Cardinal O’Malley is working to stoke the embers of spiritual revival in
Boston. He has obviously made it a top priority to revive the archdiocesan
seminary, and he is justly proud of a new bumper-crop of young men studying for
the priesthood. Yet even for that impressive achievement, one must add an
asterisk. To pay the cost of sex-abuse settlements, the archdiocese sold most
of the acreage around St. John’s seminary to Boston College, a liberal Jesuit
institution with enormous public influence and little love for the traditional
teachings of the Church. So the young men now crowding into the archdiocesan
seminary find themselves quite literally surrounded by the influence of secular
liberalism. Perhaps that is just as well, because the priests who lead the
Church in Boston in coming decades will find themselves regularly facing an
adversary culture, in a city where Catholicism was once dominant.